ʻBut Let Us Remember Him Then and Never Forget…’ - The Dilution of Satyagraha in South Africa

Scott Everett Couper


The author posits that Satyagraha (‘a force that comes from truth, love and non-violence’) as a concept and practice suffered three dilutions in South Africa. The first occurred in 1961 when Nelson Mandela launched Umkhonto we Sizwe (MK) without the African National Congress (ANC) or Albert Luthuli’s knowledge or support. Mandela’s insubordination placed the ANC, in his own words, “on a new and more dangerous path”. Satyagraha’s second dilution began in 1967 when South African nationalist historiography began to mythologise the past by articulating that Luthuli, arguably the quintessential satyagrahi, approved of and supported the armed struggle. Satyagraha’s third dilution began in 2003 when the Gandhi Development Trust began, through the Satyagraha Award, to link Satyagraha with those who launched MK and thus chose violent methods to liberate South Africa. The author argues that bestowing the Satyagraha Award upon those who themselves claim no spiritual, ethical or strategic allegiance to Satyagraha dilutes the Award’s potency to advocate for non-violent methods. The author challenges morally confused associations adopted by defenders of a sanitised history and claims that merely striving for a non-violent and peaceful society does not therefore, by default, qualify one as a proponent or practitioner of Satyagraha. The author cautions against grafting Satyagraha to the ANC’s struggle against Apartheid post-1961. Such an incongruous fusion often demonstrates an allegiance to a certain outcome (freedom) at any cost or to a political party rather than to Satyagraha’s values. The moral confusion is painfully evident in today’s violent South African society.

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